Firstly a warning to my readers, the following entry contains graphic descriptions of what may be considered animal cruelty by some, and may be a bit extreme for some readers. If you do not want to hear stories of the preparation of living sea animals for food, please do not read this entry. Caveat lector.
Many of you may have heard stories of sushi so fresh that it was still alive when it was served, which the Japanese call “ikizukuri.” I’ve seen live octopus, lobster sashimi and fish still moving, filleted on the plate. While some of these stories are true, I’m here to clarify some of these tales, debunk some, and provide some insight into some of the more unusual items found around the world on the menu.
The Living and the Dead
The first issue I’d like to address, and actually debunk, is the story of the living fish, served sashimi style or even partially cooked, yet still live, served for your pleasure (obviously not the fish’s). What brought this to mind is the following news story on the living deep fried fish, where the body has been deep fried and the head still trying to breathe on the platter when served. I have also seen fish propped up on the plate while its body has been filleted and served alongside it, the gills moving and the head seemingly still alive. But while those who serve these fish may want you to believe that the animal is still living, displaying its freshness, the truth is that while the remaining muscle may be still twitching, it is far from alive. Muscles continue to contract after death, longer in some animals than others. But a brain needs oxygen to be conscious (and alive) and without blood flowing through its veins, no animal remains alive. Deep frying half a fish, or filleting it while it is still alive fortunately kills the animal fairly quickly, contrary to the claims of the server.
Some crustaceans and mollusks on the other hand, are most certainly eaten live. Anyone who has eaten an oyster or clam on the half shell is eating a living animal. In fact, if it is dead, you wouldn’t want to eat it raw, there is too much risk of bacterial infection. But those are not the exciting stories you came for. It is not easy to find live food in North America. If you can find it, it’s usually not on the menu. But nevertheless, it can be found. But again, I use the term ‘live’ lightly.
Lobster sashimi is often claimed to be served live. If you can find it, the tail is removed from the animal and quickly prepared sashimi style while the head is placed on ice and garnished… Waving its antennae or claws at you in possible revenge? That’s the theory, at least. What really happens is that the lobster dies pretty quickly after having its tail severed from its thorax, and any movement you may see is just random neuronal firing from muscles being starved of oxygen. The creature’s brain (ganglia actually) has ceased to respond. You see, Lobsters have an open circulatory system, unlike the veins and arteries of non-crustaceans, and the pressure difference when the tail is removed is enough to stop any blood from washing head-wards. That critter, as they say, is, by the time it gets to you, an ex-lobster.
One of the few non-mollusks that is actually served and eaten live is the shrimp. But it is not the shrimp that you are used to eating in a restaurant. ‘Drunken shrimp’ as it is called, is a special, smaller shrimp native to Southeast Asia and served in a bowl in some type of alcoholic beverage, be it sake, or the local equivalent. The shrimp become listless after sitting in the alcohol for a few minutes and they are taken out, pulled apart, and sucked out of their shell (not always an easy task, mind you). They are pretty close to dead at the point of consumption, but for those of you who want the excitement of live food, there you go. Every once in a while you may get a bowl that was prepared moments before, and you may have some ‘jumpers.’ I’m sure you can imagine what kind of a scene that is…
Another mollusk sometimes served live is the octopus. I have seen (but never eaten) a bowl of live octopuses being consumed, tentacles desperately clinging to the chewing orifice of the diner. It is not a pretty sight, and while I pride myself on eating anything, I can only imagine the suffering of the animal so I chose not to partake of that particular meal. It is more popular in Korea, however, than elsewhere, so good luck finding it in in most Western nations.
So the stories of live sushi are basically based on a few examples, more assumptions and a lot of stories. With the exception of the aforementioned mollusks and shrimp, pretty much anything served ‘live’ is not really living, just showing the vestiges of random nerve twitching found in any recently deceased animal. While certainly a testament to its freshness, the presentation of the body or the whole of the animal is certainly a sight to behold. Some stories are true, but many are just for show, entertainment for our eyes as well as our taste buds.
The sushi guy
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A very well written explanation. I have tried to explain some of these “illusions” to my friends who watch too much television (where they see many of these stories sensationally presented) but to little avail. It’s good to see someone with understanding presenting the reality of the illusion in such a clear and easy to understand, but still complete manner.
This stuff about lobsters’ unconscious twitching is simply biologically false. Experts who study humane slaughter agree that chopping off the tail is not a humane method of killing a lobster. The only humane cutting method is to split the lobster down the center, destroying all their ganglia (although electric stunning is more humane still if you have the equipment). Even fish, who die pretty soon after their heads are chopped off, do not die instantly. And the claim that the fish with its head still on and gasping for air was unconscious is completely without scientific basis.This is just something to tell yourself to assuage your conscience. But an ethical person will eschew eating any animals that were subjected to such brutality.
While I agree with your statements about the humane dispatching of an animal for food, you need to define your context. When a fish is filleted or deep fried, it is no longer alive after a few moments. Without oxygen (delivered by a working circulatory system), the brain cannot function, and subsequent motion is due to nerves firing as they die locally, not a conscious act of a living brain (ganglia). Some animals are so hardy that they continue to twitch for exceptional periods of time. My post was not about whether or not these acts are humane, but to clear up a misconception that these animals are still alive when you are eating them. But thank you for your comments nevertheless, it *is* important to understand that much of our food is from animals that deserve a degree of respect from those who eat them.
I came across this post today. Shortly after I arrived in Japan in 1994 a very important art client friend took my Japanese wife and I to a very special Sushi restaurant in Hakone, located on one of the five lakes of Mount Fuji.
The owner of the restaurant is considered to be the number one Master of sushi. It’s very difficult to have a reservation because it’s very popular and also very expensive. Many rich and famous Japanese have vacation homes in this area.
The restaurant is very nice with a small river flowing through it. When we arrived the Master was present and greeted us in the normal Japanese fashion.
My art client friend spoke with the Master at some length and finally came over to me to again deeply thank me for visiting his restaurant. Instead of sitting us in the common area he showed us to a private Japanese room overlooking both the common area and Hakone Lake. At this point I knew something was going down.
The Master didn’t work in the kitchen anymore, the restaurant was well staffed with people he had trained. We were served beer and then the Master came to the opening of the room and announced to us, and all his other clients that tonight I was his very special guest and that he, the Master would make the meal.
He hadn’t preformed this in more than five years, the staff were very shocked and also the other clients. I didn’t understand at the time why this was happening. This was followed by me having to go and do some more very deep Japan bowing, my nose almost touching the floor.
I asked my Japanese art client friend if knew why this was happening. He replied that the Master knew that I was a famous English painter?
He was agreed that we have sashimi. I have no problem eating sashimi or sushi.
He arrived quite some time later, we had already been there for two hours since our arrival.
He carried in a plate with a largest fish on it, I don’t remember the kind. It was placed in front of me. When I looked down the fish had been prepared whole but the flesh of the fish had been cut sashimi style but some of it still attached. The fish was still alive and moving, both it’s head and tail were going up and down.
A deep feeling of horror came over me because I knew immediately that if I refused this would create a massive insult both to the Master and my art client friend, which would mean he could never return to that restaurant.
Wow man! I just had to deal with it. I just wanted to hit the fish over the head with my beer glass but instead I had to express great delight and more bowing.
The fish was good, it lasted more than half a hour even though we had removed it’s flesh. It would have tasted just as good if it had been killed first.
After the meal the Master came to join and entertain us with his stories. He was also a Master of the Japanese sword which he practiced everyday.
We have been back again several times but we had sushi, no more live sashimi.
So there you have it! A case of live sashimi.
Still, it wasn’t as bad as when I went to Morocco, being the guest of honor a sheep was killed and served. The guest of honor, me! was served a small covered plate which when I removed I discovered a pair of raw sheep eyes looking at me. I just shallowed the damn things whole.
To hell with cultural relativism, thats the same excuse I hear for dog fighting or bull fighting. I supose the suffering is relative too; it’s not like a fuzzy panda is being needlessly masticated alive. If you like the taste of pain just admit it and don’t pretend your worldly, classy, or sophisticated because it is expensive. If you’re wealthy enough to afford these dishes you should buy yourself a conscience instead.